National Gallery Technical Bulletin Volume 18, 1997
Methods and materials of Northern European painting in the National Gallery, 1400–1550
Rachel Billinge, Lorne Campbell, Jill Dunkerton, Susan Foister, Jo Kirby, Jennie Pilc, Ashok Roy, Marika Spring and Raymond White
Early in the 1950s, as part of the urge for renewal and reassessment following the devastation of the Second World War, one of the most extensive cataloguing projects ever undertaken was set up by the Centre National de Recherches Trimitifs flamands' (as it was then called) in Brussels. Its intention was, and is, to catalogue every surviving painting produced in the Southern Netherlands during the fifteenth and early sixteenth centuries; that is, those classified under the general heading 'Early Netherlandish' or 'les Primitifs flamands'. As part of this project, Hubert and Jan van Eyck's ‘Adoration of the Lamb’ altarpiece in the Cathedral of St Bavo, Ghent, became the subject of detailed technical investigation. It is so complex a work that it has a volume to itself in the series published by the Centre 'Primitifs Flamands'; it is also, with Dieric Bouts's ‘Altarpiece of the Blessed Sacrament’ (Louvain, St Peter's), one of the first paintings to be studied in depth in this way (note 1).
Since this time, the results of the scientific examination of many individual Northern European paintings, carried out both at the National Gallery and elsewhere, have been published; the opportunities for the investigation of a number of paintings together have, however, been limited (note 2). It is, of course, perfectly possible to obtain an overall impression by comparing the published results of individual examinations, but there are considerable advantages to be gained by studying a number of paintings as a group. If each has been examined by the same range of methods of examination under similar conditions, the results from one can be interpreted in the light of those obtained from the others: some of the elements of uncertainty involved in comparing results from different campaigns of analysis are thus absent. A general survey is of particular value, partly because it provides a general framework within which the specific examples can be fitted, but also because it is thus possible to see how a particular painter's practice fits into the context of Early Netherlandish (or German, or any other chosen geographical subdivision) painting as a whole.
What is perhaps of greater interest and importance is that it may enable one to examine the practice of a workshop; to compare the methods of one painter with another, more or less closely associated; and to elucidate the ordinary, everyday methods by which paintings were produced.
It is necessary to consider how far the National Gallery collection of Early Netherlandish and German paintings is representative of the work of these schools as a whole. The collection comprises a wide range of both religious and secular works, including panels from complex altarpieces, small altarpieces and devotional works and portraits. From this point of view, its content is entirely characteristic of the interests of those times and the products of the painters' workshops. The vast majority of the paintings are (or were originally) on panel. Paintings on canvas were produced in Northern Europe during the fifteenth century, the so-called ‘Tüchlein’ (discussed below); very few have survived and the National Gallery is indeed fortunate to have two, both in reasonable condition considering their fragility: 'The Entombment' (NG 664), painted by Dieric Bouts perhaps during the 1450s, and 'The Virgin and Child with Saints Barbara and Catherine' (NG 3664), painted by Quinten Massys probably about 1515–25.
There are certain more or less significant omissions and imbalances in this sample of paintings, however. Partly because fifteenth- and sixteenth-century state frontiers were not as they are today, partly because of the nature of the National Gallery collection, there are a number of artists who are difficult or inconvenient to categorise. The collection contains very few pictures by Northern European painters of other schools, such as the French School, of this period. It so happens that the Master of Saint Giles, who worked in Paris around the turn of the sixteenth century, is classified with the Early Netherlandish painters; for the purposes of this discussion the other French School paintings of this period in the collection, such as 'Charlemagne, and the Meeting of Saints Joachim and Anne at the Golden Gate' (NG 4092), a panel from an altarpiece by the Master of Moulins (now identified as Jean Hey), will also be included and referred to as appropriate. There are no British School paintings of the period in the collection and only one or two by Continental artists painting in Britain: the outstanding example is Hans Holbein the Younger's 'Jean de Dinteville and Georges de Selve ('The Ambassadors')' (NG 1314) painted in London in 1533. In the case of an artist like Holbein, who worked in more than one country, it is interesting and useful to compare the materials used by the painter in the different localities; differences in painting techniques used by the local artists and the foreign visitor may also become apparent (note 3). From the point of view of the technical examination of paintings, much remains to be learned about painting methods and materials used in Britain during this period. Among the German School paintings a large number are of the Cologne School. There are no Early Netherlandish paintings dating from the first quarter of the fifteenth century and very few from the German School before about 1460; the Austrian School painting of 'The Trinity with Christ Crucified' (NG 3662) dates from around 1410, the Master of Saint Veronica's 'Saint Veronica with the Sudarium' (NG 687) from about 1420, and Stephan Lochner's 'Saints Matthew, Catherine of Alexandra and John the Evangelist' (NG 705) from about 1445. Lastly, some major artists are poorly represented or unrepresented in the collection: for example Hugo van der Goes, Jan van Scorel and Mathis Grünewald (Neithardt-Gothardt).
Many Northern European altarpieces were in part sculpted, perhaps with a sculpted central scene and painted wings; the sculptures themselves were frequently painted (note 4). While the collection contains none of the sculpted elements of such altarpieces, it is possible that some of the panels may derive from the wings of altarpieces whose central portions were of this type. A number of the German School paintings are panels from what would certainly have been quite substantial altarpieces, now dismembered, such as those from the high altarpiece of the Benedictine Abbey at Liesborn, in Westphalia, painted by the Master of Liesborn probably between 1470 and 1480 (NG 256–61). The Gallery is less fortunate as far as its Early Netherlandish paintings are concerned: very few are from large altarpieces or are themselves particularly large. One of the largest is Jan Gossaert's 'Adoration of the Kings' (NG 2790), painted in about 1510–15. Jan van Eyck, Dieric Bouts and Hans Memling are represented by exquisite, but relatively small, paintings. Against these, the figures in Hans Memling's panels of 'Christ as Source of Grace with Angel Musicians' of the late 1480s (Antwerp, Koninklijk Museum voor Schone Kunsten), painted for Santa Maria la Real, Nájera, Castile, are almost life-sized. However, Rogier van der Weyden's panel of 'The Magdalen Reading' (NG 654) is a fragment of what would have been a large work and many extant Early Netherlandish panels are of a similar size and scale to Gossaert's 'Adoration of the Kings'.
In most respects, the National Gallery collection of well over 200 Northern European paintings can thus be taken as a reasonably typical sample for the purposes of technical examination. It could be said that it is not entirely representative as far as quality is concerned; the law of averages suggests that a sizeable proportion of the painted works produced over the fifteenth and sixteenth centuries would have been rather mediocre, aesthetically speaking, while a great many of the Northern European paintings (particularly those of the fifteenth century) in the collection are very fine. It must be remembered that many paintings were entirely workshop pieces, often reproductions of an original painted by the master of the shop which was then reproduced as required, but upon which the master himself might not have laid a brush. If the piece had been commissioned there might be minor modifications of the original design, to accommodate the client's wishes, but works were also reproduced because the theme depicted was popular (note 5). Undoubtedly a number of the pictures in the National Gallery collection are of this type.